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Discovering Napa's Pope Valley District

As the Pope Valley nears AVA status, there is need to educate consumers about the value of the appellation.

Napa Valley (AVA)

Discovering Pope Valley with Flora Springs’ Pat Garvey

"Pope Valley is probably the last viable place remaining in the greater Napa Valley American Viticulture Area."

by Alan Goldfarb
September 26, 2006

Pope Valley is probably the last viable place remaining in the greater Napa Valley American Viticuture Area (AVA). This is probably because of its remoteness, and its relatively inexpensive grapes, at least in relation to every other grape growing appellation among the valley’s 14 named sub-regions.

All that may change within a couple of years. Because the people involved in Pope Valley, which is situated about 25 miles inland east of the Silverado Trail above the towns of Rutherford and St. Helena, will soon apply for official AVA status.

Pat Garvey is the vineyard manager for Flora Springs, which owns 600 acres that span 10 vineyards and a half-dozen of the valley’s sub-AVAs. That number includes 275 acres that Flora Springs purchased in Pope Valley in 1981, which makes Garvey one of the earliest progenitors in the modern era of the region’s fruit.

Garvey knows the area well. As outlined in a forthcoming proposal to the TTB, Pope Valley encompasses a thin strip east of Chiles Valley and south of Howell Mountain. If this proposal is approved in a couple of years or so, Pope Valley will comprise 108 square miles in an area that is approximately 18 miles long and six miles across at its widest point. Elevations range from 500 to 1,400 feet. The average price of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Pope Valley is currently about $2,200 a ton, depending upon supply and demand. That compares to an average price of $4,000 for Cab from most anywhere else in the valley.

The price per acre of land in other parts of the valley ranges now from a quarter million to $350,000. Compare that to Pope Valley, where one can purchase an acre for less than half that.

The interest in Pope Valley is surely on the rise, judging by the number of newcomers setting down roots there. For instance, the recent purchase of 272 acres of the old Aetna Springs property by Michael Mondavi and his son and daughter will most assuredly elevate the status, if not the perception of the area.

Others currently growing grapes and/or making wine in Pope Valley include St. Supéry’s Dollarhide Vineyard, Cosentino’s CE2V property, Peju, Rutherford Hill, Kathryn Hall, Piña, Nord, and Eagle & Rose.

Alan Goldfarb (AG): Why did Flora Springs invest in Pope Valley so long ago when it was hardly a blip on the radar?

the initial decision to plant in the Pope Valley was due in part to an abundance of water Pat Garvey (PG): In 1981, everybody was price conscious. And it was a good opportunity to make some reds. There was a huge amount of water which is a scarcity up there. There was more (water) than we’d ever need, so it was too hard to turn down.

AG: How far along is the AVA proposal to the TTB?

PG: We’ve sent out a survey at the suggestion of Rob Mondavi (Michael’s son) asking such questions as: Have you ever heard of Pope Valley? Do you know where it’s located? Do you believe it will be an important area? Even if the responses are negative, we’ve overcome it by providing education about Pope Valley.

AG: And once you get the survey back?

PG: We’re sold on the name Pope Valley District. Within the next 60 days - most likely in November - we’ll send to the TTB.

AG: But Pope used to be considered where you go to get inexpensive grapes in the Napa Valley. In some ways, it still has the connotation.

Wines such as Flora Springs’ Wild Boar should change the perception of Pope Valley as inexpensive PG: Sure it does. But we’re working with newer clones and newer rootstocks and working with people who have made wine. There will be some growing pains there (though).

AG: What do you think is the quality of the grapes from Pope? And what do you think they can be?

PG: Whenever you plant older rootstocks, you have to ask: What did you have in the field, and what are you bringing now?

I’m looking at soils that are equivalent to St. Helena, Rutherford, and Oakville. I can’t see any reason why the quality can’t be similar. The soils are pretty uniform.

AG: What are the soil types?

PG: Bressa Dibble, Aiken and Butte series, which are found in bedrock or soft sediments at slight depths, and midland soils that are found in well-drained silt loams.

AG: What about the growing season up there?

PG:Flora Springs Wild Boar Because of the distance from the ocean (about 60 miles), there is less influence from the marine layer. Fog is rare during the summer months. But cool air from San Pablo Bay comes up 20 miles through Chiles Valley.

The growing season starts later than on the valley floor. But the season is shorter and harvest tends to be ahead of the floor by 7 to 10 days.

AG: Is there a distinction about Pope?

PG: We’re bettin’ on it. We know we’ve got temperatures that are more extreme than in the center of the Napa Valley, Rutherford. We run from the high 90s to the high 40s. We also get colder. We think that will benefit acids, pHs, Cabernet and Bordeaux blends and other reds. We also know that terrific Sauvignon Blancs are being introduced there. Many of us are experimenting with Syrah and Sangiovese.

It’s a kind of a last frontier that’s still alive there. For me, that’s the real draw. When you talk to a grower there, you’re talking to someone who farms the property himself and lives on it.

AG: What do you think the future holds for Pope?

PG: We’re (Flora Springs) making a wine -- Wild Boar -- that sells for $95. So when you talk to me about Pope Valley being an inexpensive area with low-quality grapes, I don’t hear you. It may be a hard sell, but I don’t see it. But it’s definitely going to be an education process.

~ Alan Goldfarb, Regional Correspondent – Napa Valley

To comment on Alan Goldfarb’s writings and thoughts, contact him at a.goldfarb@appellationamerica.com

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